My visit to Pátzcuaro, in the state of Michoacán, coincided with Mexico's Day of the Dead celebrations, a time when local residents honor, and commune with, their departed ancestors. It is a day, tradition holds, when the dead can rejoin the living for a brief time.
Much of the traditional "action" takes place in local cemeteries. People decorate the graves of their loved ones with elaborate displays of brightly-colored flowers, candles, decorative wreaths, photographs and some of the departed's favorite foods and drink. Then, they pass a full night keeping vigil at the gravesite, sharing food with others nearby and symbolicly reuniting with their ancestors.
The Day of the Dead has many roots in Mexico's indigenous cultures. The Pátzcuaro area, as home to the Purépecha (also known as Tarasca, the name given by the Spanish), is a prime place to see the celebrations. The Day of the Dead (which actually stretches over several days) is hardly a solemn occasion. During the day, outdoor markets teem with people and the streets come alive with special events. Pátzcuaro, for example, set up a program featuring area folk music and dances. One particularly amusing dance was performed by the "viejitos" – the little old men – children dressed up as old men in bright peasant garb and trying their best to perform the intricate steps of the dance while appearing to be bent over with age. Their greatest challenge, however, proved to be keeping their masks and ribboned hats from falling off.
The Day of the Dead is also a wonderful opportunity for Mexicans to focus on their macabre fascination with death, skulls and skeletons – a fascination that is evident in the artwork of both pre-Hispanic cultures and 20th century painters such as Frida Khalo, José Clemente Orozco and countless others. Candy and ceramic skulls, along with statuettes of skeletons dressed in evening gowns, feathered boas and ostentatious hats, filled the outdoor markets. So there could be no doubt, the city of Pátzcuaro even suspended a large skeleton from a tree next to the main plaza.
While the Day of the Dead may have started out as a folk holiday and a time of spiritual reunion, it has evolved into much more than that. Perhaps because it was also a weekend, the 2003 festivities drew large crowds to Pátzcuaro who were more interested in drinking and partying all night than experiencing the traditional ceremonies. The multitudes even included members of a Mexican motorcycle gang who roared their Harleys well into the early morning hours. While the boisterous crowd was generally well behaved, prospective visitors should be aware that the Day of the Dead may not be the quiet, spiritual meditation they might expect. Think Spring break!
During the rest of the year, Pátzcuaro is a quiet and charming colonial town, though on a scale far more modest than Morelia, Querétaro or even Guanajuato. The distinctive red and white buildings and narrow streets give Pátzcuaro a homier and less formal feel than the grand stone edifices of those other cities. The city overlooks Lake Pátzcuaro, its several islands and out to the mountains beyond. The lakeshore itself is dotted with smaller towns and villages, including the picturesque Tzintzuntzan. This latter village, in addition being the site of quieter and more traditional Day of the Dead celebrations, lies in the shadow of the ancient pyramids of the Purépecha empire at Tzintzuntzan.
Pátzcuaro and surrounding area is also known for a variety of crafts, including embroidered fabrics, masks, copperware, tinwork and guitars. Needless to say, there are many shops in Pátzcuaro that offer wide range of regional crafts. For a chance to see antique versions of many of these items, check out the Museum of Popular Art and Archeology, which features rooms of different art forms, plus the remains of a pre-Hispanic town and a delightful courtyard.